I recently introduced my young son to the latest Star Trek reboot to balance his growing knowledge and love of Star Wars. He’s fascinated by space and pioneering exploration, of which the latter seems have made its way to earth and into the current legislative programme.
The new government and new communities secretary Greg Clark are boldly going where no-one has gone before with the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. But are they being bold or radical or localist enough? Does the bill devolve power to people and communities outside of the big cities??
Well the story so far is no, and that the Bill doesn’t, although it is good news for Greater Manchester and other well organised large cities.
Hence the government has an opportunity, through the Bill and in other ways, to match measures at the strategic level with action to support the local level; power to the cities, yes, but power to the parishes too.
England’s 9,000 parish and town councils are the backbone of local democracy, giving people a voice and structure for taking action, and increasingly delivering more services to improve their area, in particular gulping up discretionary services as austerity bites in the rest of local government – a real localist powerhouse.
A good start was made during the last Parliament to give people, communities and parish councils more power through the Localism Act. It’s not a perfect set of tools to put people more in the driving seat, but a new set of tools in the box all the same. Neighbourhood planning, community rights, making it easier to set up parishes, barrier-busting and removing red tape; these are all decentralisation measures moving in the right direction.
Now over a month into the job the government has a fantastic chance to build on some of the foundations laid over the last five years and to truly empower the localist powerhouse that is the parish councils movement.
So how can the Cities Bill and devolution agenda be strengthened?
Well, it should speed up the opportunity for communities in cities to have grassroots neighbourhood democracy for one. Requiring councils to conduct a community governance review within two years of the Act coming into force would accelerate the opportunity for local people to decide if they want more of a say over public services and how their money is spent, alongside delivering very local services which can be tailored to local needs.
Another measure would be to improve the links and relationships between parishes and combined authorities and new mayors, with involvement in overview and scrutiny committees. While many principal councils try to ensure there are effective relations between the tiers – with some good examples and approaches highlighted in a joint report we published with LGA in recent years – there is more work to be done. Given £10m in council tax support funding is not being passed on to parishes and improvement is needed about dialogue on taking on discretionary services like toilets, libraries, grass cutting or youth projects, more work is needed to encourage and promote effective engagement between councils.
But there are other devolutionary steps outside of the Bill which could put communities in control of their areas by strengthening local democracy (such as creating more parishes and introducing a right of appeal), providing fairer funding (including a share of business rate for parishes and ensuring they have the freedom to use their precept to invest in local services) and more powers (including a Parishes Bill to reform red tape and a review of the Localism Act and the general power of competence).
In short, there has probably never been a better opportunity to decentralise and devolve more power to our neighbourhoods, villages and towns.
So let’s boldly go there!